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Farmers blame Congress for lack of immigration reform, but see new coalitions forming

Fruit and vegetable farmers from four corners of the country complained last week that congressional inaction on immigration is forcing them to leave crops on the ground, but key immigration lobbyists also took a fresh approach to the issue, saying that farm workers should be considered skilled workers and that new allies are coming forward in the immigration battle.

In a call last Thursday to reporters organized by The National Immigration Forum, farmers from Washington state, New York, Arizona and North Carolina said that the combination of congressional inaction, federal enforcement of current laws and stricter state laws is leaving fruits and vegetables rotting on the vine.

Compared with foreign-born graduates in science, technology, engineering and math who have frequently won increases in visas, farm workers are considered unskilled.

But Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum said they should be considered skilled.

“America’s economy needs a skilled farm worker as much as it needs an engineer,” Noorani said.

Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform said the term STEM — often used to describe desirable science, technology, engineering and math graduates — should be changed to STEAM to add agricultural workers to the list.

The Obama administration has conducted raids on illegal immigrants in the hope of creating an atmosphere in which the general public would see an atmosphere in which the government was strict on enforcement, allowing immigration reform legislation to move forward, but that has not happened.

Ralph Broetje, president of the 6,000-acre Broetje Orchards in eastern Washington state, said that the “audits” — as officials call what are otherwise known as raids — resulted in longtime workers being deported.

“Enforcement-only immigration policy has devastated our labor force,” Broejtie said, noting that the workers forced to leave were “highly skilled.”

“People we recruit now are new to agriculture, they may last a day or two,” he said. “A lot make minimum wage, but experienced people make $20 per hour or more. It is getting worse each year.”

The impact can be seen, Broetje said, in the movement of the asparagus industry to Peru and the reduction in the number of apple juice processors, since China grows half the apples in the world and has gone into that business.

Maureen Torrey, vice president for marketing of Torrey Farms in western New York, noted that the demand for fresh fruits and vegetables has never been better and that her farm, which has been in the family for 12 generations since 1803, is located near 40 percent of the U.S. population. But she added, “The labor supply is very short.”

Torrey noted that the Homeland Security Department is “very active” and that the Labor Department has put up posters telling farm workers that training is available for them to enter other fields.

Meanwhile, she noted, the New York state government is promoting the construction of yogurt plants, but not addressing the need to increase the milk production to make the yogurt.

“Canada is waiting to ship milk and fruits and vegetables,” Torrey said. “Canada has a viable farm worker program that we lack. We need to have our Congress in Washington develop a common sense program.”

Nan Stockholm Walden, vice president and counsel for the Farmers Investment Co. in Arizona, the largest grower and processor of pecans in the world, said that Arizona’s strict laws on immigration “have created a climate of fear among employees and potential employees,” and that workers at her company’s operations in Arizona and Georgia are moving elsewhere, including Canada

“There has never been a greater need for federal leadership on immigration reform,” she said.

“In Arizona this climate of fear has allowed people with racist motives to intimidate workers,” Walden said. She cited the case of her company’s plant manager, a woman with a master’s degree, who was stopped by police and when she asked, the officer acknowledged she was driving the speed limit.

Walden said her company has used the “e-verify” system to check the legal status of workers and found it fairly efficient. Regelbrugge said changes need to be made, because the audits have forced some firms to fire workers who had been cleared through that system.

The farmers said they have found it impossible to get most members of Congress to take up the issue of immigration reform publicly.

The issue “is so toxic and controversial, it polarizes folks so quickly, that many of the candidates shy away from a discussion of it,” said Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau. “If one candidate says anything about it, the other candidate uses it in opposition. In the public arena the candidates do not want to have a public discussion.”

He noted that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has introduced bills to reform immigration policy, has said that if the United States does not fix the system the country will be importing its food.

Walden said she believes there “is starting to be a real awakening” on the issue among Arizona business leaders, particularly in the trucking, retail grocery, restaurant, hospitality, equine, and bovine industries. She also noted that a Arizona state senator who had authored some of the most “draconian” laws had been recalled.

Regelbrugge said he has not analyzed whether the employers of STEM workers make bigger campaign contributions than farmers, but acknowledged that there is more public consciousness of the need for highly skilled workers.

More work needs to be done to show the rest of the business community that they depend on agricultural exports, he said. Using the example of a port worker, Regelbrugge asked “Does he think about whether his job is dependent on the worker taking the apple off the tree?”

Wooten said the North Carolina Farm Bureau has tried to make immigration a No. 1 issue, but “Our political leaders are not looking at this issue from a jobs standpoint, and they lack the backbone. We have got to remove the word amnesty [from the debate].”

But Noorani and Regelbrugge did see hope in the debate.

Noorani said he sees a new consensus among growers, law enforcement officials and evangelical leaders on the immigration issue. (Many Hispanic immigrants have left the Catholic church to join evangelical churches.)

Regelbrugge concurred, saying that law enforcement officials have noted that the firings make crime worse, and that when forced from their jobs and facing deportment, immigrants often turn to churches.

Immigration policy is not always predictable, Regelbrugge said. The Obama administration’s decision to allow young immigrants to stay in the country if they were in school was prompted, he said, by the interest that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., showed in the issue.

“Job one is to get Congress off the dime,” Regelbrugge said.